Are Americans still willing to bear the burden of self-government?
Excerpt from Money and Class in America, Lewis Lapham (1988). Lapham talks about America’s decreasing willingness to bear the burden of self-government, a long-standing theme of this site (at the end you will see links to other posts on this subject).
The Precarious Eden (page 158-159)
Under a republican form of government the citizenry supposedly accepts the responsibility for managing its own affairs, but over the last quarter of a century the heirs to the American fortune have lost interest in the tiresome business of self-government. Rather than vote or read the Constitution, the heirs prefer to go to Acapulco or Aspen to practice macrobiotic breathing. They have better things to do with their lives than to be bothered with the details of preserving their freedom.
They spend their time making themselves beautiful, holding themselves in perpetual readiness for the incarnations promised by the dealers in cosmetics and religion. The country still flatters itself that it enjoys the self-government of a sovereign people, but for at least a generation the conduct of its business has been left in the hands of the servants, both public and domestic.
Much the same sort of languid fantasy seized the last generation of Southern aristocrats in the years preceding the Civil War. Within the sanctuaries of their plantations they could play with the toys of courtly romance.
… In 1987 the United States as a whole bears an unsettling resemblance to the antebellum South. We import luxurious manufactures and imperfectly redress our trade balance with the export of of agriculture and raw materials. The well-to-do gentry affect an aristocratic disdain for commerce and trade, and their gossip about politics betrays the infantile contradictions of people who want
- lower taxes and better public services,
- less child molesting and more pornography,
- no military draft and stronger armies,
- less crime and more profit.
The business magazines that publish worried articles about the decline of American productivity — the editorialist bemoaning the trade imbalances or the extent of consumer debt — also publish, often in an adjoining column, four-color advertisements for gold-headed golf clubs and matched pairs of Rolls-Royce cars.
By abdicating their authority and responsibility, the sovereign people also relinquish their courage. Like rich old women in Palm Beach or a committee of dithering lawyers, the American electorate listens to the wisdom of its public servants as if to voices of minor oracles. Politicians and Cabinet ministers appear in the role of of the omniscient butler who finds phrases of art with which to conceal the embarrassments of the young master’s profligacy and reduced circumstances.
About Social Hygiene (pages 114-115)
Transferred into the political arena, the doctrines of social sanitation oblige all candidates for public office to feign the clean-limbed idealism of college sophomores. Even the meanest of politicians has no choice but to present himself as one who would remove the stains from capitalism’s bloody clothes and wash the sheets of American conscience. The post of innocence is as mandatory as the ability to eat banquet food and endure the scourging of the press.
No candidate can say with Talleyrand, that he is int it for the money, or that it is the business of politicians to add to the wealth of their handlers. The system in place is always assumed to be corrupt, and the electorate expects its once and future Presidents to tell wholesome lies — to present themselves as honest and good-natured fellows who know little or nothing of murder, ambition, lust, selfishness, cowardice, or greed. The more daring members of the troupe might go so far as to admit having read about such awful things in the newspapers. but the incidents in question invariably have to do with a foreign country or with somebody belonging to the other political party.
Generations of reformers — whether liberal or neoliberal, conservative or neoconservative — come forward with plans to remove the politics from what hey prefer to describe as “the political process.” They campaign on the preposterous notion that if only all the smoke-filled rooms in the Washington could be aired and fumigated, then all the deals could be done on public televisions by civic-minded officials shuffling their papers with white gloves.
Some things don’t change
Letter from Nicholas Biddle to James S. Barbour, 16 April 1833 (source). Barbour served as Secretary of War and Governor of Virgina (Wikipedia). Nicholar Biddle was President of the Second Bank of the United States (Wikipedia)
I know this so well that I feel myself a much more profound Jurist than all the lawyers and all the statesmen of Virginia put together, for in half an hour, I can remove all the constitutional scruples in the District of Columbia. Half a dozen Presidencies — a dozen Cashierships — fifty Clerkships — a hundred Directorships — to worthy friends who have no character and no money. Why, there is more matter for deep reflection in such a sen- tence than in any twenty of Tacitus or Montesquieu. It would outweigh the best argument of your Madisons and Randolphs and Watkins Leigh’s.
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For more information from the FM site
To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar. Of esp interest these days:
Posts on the FM site about America’s ability to govern ourselves:
- Americans, now a subservient people (listen to the Founders sigh in disappointment), 20 July 2008
- de Tocqueville warns us not to become weak and servile, 21 July 2008
- A soft despotism for America?, 22 July 2008
- Can Americans pull together? If not, why not?, 29 July 2008
- The American spirit speaks: “Baa, Baa, Baa”, 5 August 2008
- We’re Americans, hear us yell: “baa, baa, baa”, 6 August 2008
- Fixing America: shall we choose elections, revolt, or passivity?, 16 August 2008
- Fixing American: taking responsibility is the first step, 17 August 2008
- Fixing America: the choices are elections, revolt, or passivity, 18 August 2008
- The intelligentsia takes easy steps to abandoning America, 19 August 2008
- America’s elites reluctantly impose a client-patron system, 5 November 2008
Immigration as a reverse election: our leaders get a new people, 6 November 2008
More material from Lewis Lapham:
- “Elegy for a rubber stamp”, by Lewis Lapham, 26 August 2008
- Obama’s cabinet are the best and brightest (here we go, again), 20 February 2009
- Observations about America by Lewis Lapham, 8 March 2009
- A note on the green religion, one of the growth industries in America, 17 March 2009